Pu’uhonua o Honaunau

Sunday started with Trinity and I attending Mass. In a strange turn of events, the church, St. Michael the Archangel, is just one block down the street, but, at the moment, they are constructing a new church, and so are holding Mass in a large tent a few miles away. It was a children’s Mass, with children in the choir – singing and playing ipu – taking up the collection, and bringing up the gifts. It was also First Communion for one little girl. In this parish, instead of all the second graders receiving First Eucharist together, each child receives when they and their parents have completed the preparation process. Because it was a children’s Mass, we chanted a couple of prayers in Hawai’ian. The priest was a guest, visiting from The Philippines for the month. He preached a lovely homily about the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the Eucharist, and prayer. I have always loved that gospel passage and have often wished that they had recorded all that Jesus taught them on the road.

In the afternoon, we went to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, a national historical park on the Kona coast. It is the only surviving example of a pu’uhonua, which was a place of refuge in the days before the kapu laws were abandoned. In centuries past, the laws were very straightforward and the only penalty was death, to be executed by the witness(es) to the offense, lest the gods express their displeasure at the broken kapu by sending down a lava flow, storm, or some other calamity. If, however, the person who broke kapu could reach a pu’uhonua first, the kahuna pule (priest) could absolve him/her and s/he could return to the outside world. The trick was that the pu’uhonua was walled off within the royal compound, where commoners could not set foot, so the only way in was to swim at least half a mile in the ocean to reach safety.

Others could also seek safety in the pu’uhonua. The chiefs would declare a battle a week or so in advance. This gave women, children, and men too old or sick to fight the opportunity to seek shelter in the pu’uhouna to avoid being killed in the battle. There was a take no prisoners approach to war then and no such thing as a non-combatant, so, unless you were a warrior, you needed to leave the area where the battle was to be fought. After the battle, those who had sought refuge would be free to return.

We went to a ranger talk before we walked around the grounds. He had made whimsical insect sculptures, woven from coconut palm. He gave them to wahine (women) who answered questions. Trinity got one early on because she could remember and pronounce Pu’uhonua o Honaunau; I got one later for remembering the name of one of the four major gods, Lono, to whom the main temple there was dedicated. The insects are supposed to be used for stirring mai tais, but ours will probably stay dry! The ranger also played a bit for us on his nose flute. I hadn’t ever heard and watched one being played. The sound is haunting but lovely.

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